My life-blood seemed to sip.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
For a theist, Martin Luther King Jr was a pretty cool guy. An eloquent user of the big metaphor, King encapsulated grand ideas in succinct, penetrating images. I was thinking of "I have been to the mountain-top" the other day, on the twentieth anniversary of the worst day of my life.
To be able to go to the mountain-top implies that one has, as well, been to the abyss. A work colleague, at elevenses on Thursday, remarked to the staff in general that I seem to have a perpetually sunny disposition. "How come you're always so chipper, Laurie?", she asked.
I told her the following story.
It was a Saturday morning in late winter, bright and sunny outside. I was working on an essay on Kant's Critique, a project I'd been studying hard for. It was all falling into place, and I was ready to seriously get to grips with space, time and consciousness. I was thirty-five, and as intellectually fit as I was ever going to get. (Oh, the delusions we suffer!)
I was alone. My wife, Chris, had taken our five year-old son to his soccer match - she'd taken our infant daughter, too, and left me with instructions to at least get a little bit of house-work done. The phone rang.
"Do you own a blue Hi-Lux?" asked a voice I didn't recognise. "You'd better get up to Comleroy Road - your wife's had an accident. She's trapped in the car. The ambulance is on its way. I think the kids are OK."
All of this was delivered in rapid-fire. From that point on, reality seemed to roll out in a hazy, slow-motion nightmare. I must have rung a neighbour, I must have been screaming at him, because he was at my place seemingly instantaneously, and we drove off at high speed.
We got to the site of the accident, a bend on a winding country road about ten kilometres from our place. My wife had had a head-on collision with a four wheel drive. I remember seeing our car, a ute. It was unrecognisable. It was smashed to bits. I ran toward it. I think I was screaming. My wife was inside. She was smashed to pieces. Twenty years later, the memory of that sight still makes me cry. She was alive, just. The impact had forced the gearbox and half the motor through the firewall, which had smashed her legs back under the seat. The steering wheel and column was a tangled mess of steel pinning her upper body, somehow, to the roof of the car. She was conscious. She whispered "Laurie. The kids."
The ambulance arrived. A guy pushed me, or carried me, I don't know, to the side of the road. My children were being held by two women. I grabbed them both - they were in deep, deep shock. Their eyes were glazed. They weren't making a sound. I held them tightly to me. It was all I could do, it was all I could do. I sank to the ground, the baby in my arms, my little boy clinging to me. The great philosopher died on that spot, on that day.
The rescue crew freed my wife from the car by just cutting it into even more pieces. Chris kept dying; the ambos kept resuscitating her. She stabilised. I got into the front of the ambulance, my neighbour put the kids in his car, and we drove twenty ks to the hospital. Every time Chris came back to consciousness she would start to scream in agony; it is the worst sound I have ever heard. I was in a funk of shock and abject terror. We got to the hospital, and she was raced straight into X-Ray, then theatre. The kids were examined. They were OK, just some minor bruising from their seat belts. The gearbox had come to rest on the back seat between them, and my son had a little burn on his leg. He didn't even notice it.
Other people took over my life. The only thing I could force myself to do was to ring her parents. "She's in theatre. She's broken lots of bones. I don't know. I don't know. You'll have to come quickly, I think." These poor, elderly people were horrified and terrified just like me. There was nothing we could do for each other.
Eight hours later, a little Pakistani orthopedic surgeon came out of the operating theatre, covered in blood. He walked up to me. I had never seen him before. He took me by both arms, stared into my face and said "Your wife will live."
Chris had broken nearly every bone in both feet and ankles, both tibia and fibula, her left femur, her pelvis in several places, all of her ribs, sternum, collarbones and both fore- and upper-arms. She had no head injuries. She "died" over a dozen times. She had fourteen operations to put the parts back together; she was in hospital for three months, and signed herself out when she couldn't stand it anymore.
My children are healthy and happy. That little glazed-eyed two year old girl now has her own little girl, who you can see on the right of this story. My son plays classical guitar beautifully, and is something of a wine connoisseur. My wife is a brilliant teacher.
There is no god. Every day is a bonus. Science saves lives. Life is beautiful.